As the conscience of America seems permanently mired in economic worries, it is nearly impossible to find anything worth smiling at, let alone cheering for. However, in a recent GOP debate, Rick Perry was able to rouse a seemingly comatose audience not only into consciousness but also rousing applause. He didn’t do it by lambasting Obamacare or proposing a fiscal policy to get Americans out of the proverbial hole; he did it by saying nothing.
While asking Governor Perry’s opinion on the record number of executions that occurred under his watch in the state of Texas, moderator Brian Williams was unable to finish his question before the audience began to yawp and clap their hands as one would during the final thirty seconds of a basketball game. After the audience’s heartbeats finally slowed, Perry went on to state that Americans have a keen sense of “justice,” and that “if you come into our state and you kill … you will be executed.”
The ancient Hammurabi-esque similarities do not go unnoted. This institutionalized bloodlust is rarely practiced in democratic and industrialized countries, but is fairly common in nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia, two countries that certainly do not claim to be international vanguards of liberty and human rights like the United States so often does.
However modern and civilized the United States tries to present itself to the world, capital punishment is one of the ugliest aspects of the American system, and is something that many leaders try to conceal when patrolling the globe and insisting on others’ adherence to human rights. However, as the contentious execution of Troy Davis ignited international outrage, it is a flaw that many around the world can plainly see and one that has consistently contributed to others’ doubts about the United States’ role as a champion of modern justice and progress.
Yet at home, support for the death penalty is very public and popular. To make matters more difficult, it is impossible to point the finger at a single perpetrator: Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike have favored the practice throughout the years despite its many proven failures and weaknesses. As a consequence, the self-injected and macabre fascination with capital punishment in the American bloodstream is something that has reduced the United States’ already slothful pace toward universally compliant judicial systems and human rights to that of a snail’s crawl.
According to Scott Henson, a criminal justice blogger, Rick Perry has picked up on the popularity of capital punishment among voters and has tried his best to take as much credit as possible for every single execution administered during his time in office. To date, there have been a whopping 236 executions. While Perry’s attempts to show strong ties between the governor’s office and the capital punishment process are a bit misleading, his position is emblematic of a cowboy-style approach to justice in America.
Since 1608, over 15,000 people have been executed in the United States and its preceding colonies. In 1608, the man first recorded as executed on American soil was Jamestown colonist Captain George Kendall. Accused of being a spy for the Spanish government, a score of bullets kissed Kendall a final adios.
As means of further separation from the British Crown after the Revolutionary War, legislators tried to remove the death penalty as punishment for a majority of crimes. In 1846, Michigan took the title of being the first English-speaking government in the world to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason. Yet in the midst of the sectional schism of the American Civil War, Vermont legislators transferred execution authority from local to state government, and many other states soon followed suit. According to historian William McFeely, this was done in hopes of restraining overzealous “hanging judges.” However, the opposite happened: Vermont’s upward transfer of the power to execute set the stage for the institutionalized practice that many Americans clap about today.
After the conclusion of World War I, nearly all of the nine states that had previously abandoned the death penalty toward the end of the 19th century began to re-embrace it. Consequently, lynching and false accusations of crimes committed by African-American men largely helped define the post-World War I judicial scene. However, many white and corrupt state governmental bodies used legalized execution as yet another way to manifest their racism, as evidenced by the fact that the two largest mass executions in United States history were administered to Native Americans and African-American soldiers.
Especially prevalent in the South and only pardoned posthumously, states executed many African-Americans and those who dared to aid them in their pursuits of equality. Setting the standard for backwards politics and general barbarism, in 1825 South Carolina was the last state that utilized the antiquated practice of burning someone at the stake as a valid execution method. Additionally, in 1859 a South Carolinian male named Starling Carlton was executed for aiding a runaway slave, while in 1860 Alabama, three African American slaves committed the then-capital crime of protesting against slavery. And as Southern justice would have it, they paid with their lives.
In the 20th century, African-American George Stinney became the youngest person to be executed in the United States. Despite the lack of evidence and rumors of being promised ice cream by the police if he confessed to the crime, Stinney was accused and convicted of killing two young white girls in South Carolina in 1944. Barely able to fill the seat of the electric chair with his 95-pound body, Stinney’s 14-year-old life ended before it could even begin.
Largely coinciding with the anti-Vietnam movement opposition toward government-funded killing, the effects of the Civil Rights movement finally made their way to the highest source of change, the United States Supreme Court. By reviewing the consolidated cases that comprised the Furman vs. Georgia ruling, the Court rendered the death penalty to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment, as it constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” However, the decision did not abolish the death penalty altogether, but rather essentially stated that a lack of enforceable and equitable standards might lead to selective sentencing on behalf of the state. And as Justices Stewart and Douglas expressed, these selections could potentially be the result of racial discrimination.
Still unable to satiate the grisly American desire for “justice,” many states quickly instated and adjusted their own death penalty statutes to comply with the Court’s decision. In order to appear “fair” and therefore constitutionally permitted to deliver their fatal condemnations, certain states mandated the prescription of the death sentence for those convicted of certain forms of murder.
Contrary to the Charlie Daniels Band’s lyrical legend, the devil never left Georgia: only four years passed since the Furman v. Georgia verdict when Georgia and several other Southern states’ morbid impulses returned to the halls of the Supreme Court. In 1976, it was in the form of the Gregg v. Georgia case. This time, five defendants engaged in an ultimately futile attempt to get the Supreme Court to extend its Furman ruling and declare capital punishment as unconstitutional once and for all.
However, the more conservative Court used the precedence of the Furman case only in its determination of administrative fairness in the states’ death penalty statutes, not to decide if the death penalty was constitutionally legitimate in the first place. Subsequently, the Court upheld the Florida, Texas, and Georgia death penalty statutes as constitutionally sound, and thereby ended the fledgling four-year moratorium on the death penalty.
As a result, the heavily disproportionate presence of the African-American male as a death row inmate is entirely unsurprising. Despite comprising only 13% of the general population, African Americans make up 41% of the people on death row. In fact, the non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office found “a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty.” In a similar 2007 study conducted by the Yale University School of Law, the results revealed that African-American defendants in Connecticut courts receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white.
Even less shocking, of the 37 states that have legalized executions, the majority of them take place in southern states like Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Texas, all of which help comprise what is known as the “Death Belt.” Equipped with confederate and racist roots, the number of executions in these four states alone constitutes over half of those administered by all 37 participating states since Gregg v. Georgia’s reopening of those fatal floodgates.
Furthermore, as a result of the re-examination of certain death sentence prescribed cases and the influence of more modern times and technology, 138 death row inmates have been exonerated on the basis of possible innocence since 1973. And as expected, over half of those released were African American.
Despite the combination of deeply entrenched yet visible roots of racism in the American prescription of capital punishment, the scientific and legislative advances that have resulted in the reversal of fates, and the explicit concern from nationally renowned and reputable organizations like the American Bar Association, capital punishment still remains popular among Americans. In a 2010 Gallup poll, those who supported capital punishment in cases of murder more than doubled those who did not. And even when life in prison without parole was listed as an alternative in a similar 2001 poll, a majority (albeit a narrow one) of Americans still favored the death penalty.
It is safe to say that scientific evidence does not matter to most Americans; improved societal norms do not matter; state and federal legislative progress do not matter, nor do the opinions of accredited legal experts. And as evidenced by the Troy Davis execution, the movements and opinions of international organizations and communities especially do not matter to the majority of Americans and their elected officials. They rarely have.
In spite of its permanent membership with the United Nations, the United States only signed the UN-adopted International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with ostensible reservation in 1992. The covenant, rather dated at this point, was originally adopted in 1976. And as expected, the United States’ diplomatic dip-set came in response to Article 6, which stated that the ultimate objective of the agreement was to abolish the death penalty.
In 1997 Bacre Waly N’diaye, a UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Execution, accepted an invitation on behalf of the Clinton Administration to examine claims of arbitrary and racist application of the death penalty. Upon his arrival in D.C., however, his requests to meet with the President and various members of his cabinet were denied. And as a later and typically American response, Senator Jesse Helms publicly chalked N’diaye’s requests as insulting and nothing more than another “absurd UN charade.”
Together, the federally permitted Troy Davis tragedy juxtaposed by the warm praise generated by audience members in regard to capital punishment at a recent GOP debate represent all that is wrong with the American justice system and why the United States cannot continue to spread the lie that it provides equal justice to its citizens. Until these institutionalized and internal wrongs are rectified, the United States should be not regarded as a global moral authority. If the country chooses not to change, its international legitimacy will perish just as its many citizens have in the past: by the government’s own accord.